President Joe Biden announced Thursday that his administration will require all civilian federal workers provide their Covid-19 vaccination status or face strict testing measures, social distancing and masking requirements and limited travel.
The new rule comes as Covid cases are rising again in all 50 states due to the highly contagious delta variant and vaccination rates have leveled off. In the U.S., 69.3% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For months, business leaders have debated whether employers should require workers get the vaccine to prevent the spread of the virus. So far, many companies have left the decision up to individuals, but public health and employment experts say the new Biden administration policy could lead more private-sector employers to implement their own vaccination rules.
"Every employer, be it public or private, that mandates vaccination for employees paves the way for other employers considering doing the same thing," says Sharon Perley Masling, a partner and director of workplace culture consulting at the employment law firm Morgan Lewis.
Federal mandate could pave the way for private-sector policies
First, the federal decision provides a sweeping precedent that employers can point to as a reason why they're adopting a similar policy for their own staff right now. Businesses will also have a point of reference for how to handle pushback and employees who may threaten legal action against the requirement. And finally, leaders can learn from the way the federal policy is rolled out and enforced.
Working through operational challenges will take time and could be especially difficult for small businesses, Lee says. Employers will have to figure out how to verify their employees' vaccination status, securely store this information and keep an eye out for fraudulent documentation. In many cases, employees who don't get vaccinated will be subject to regular Covid-19 testing, which takes time, money and people to oversee that screenings are done routinely and enforced fairly.
Weighing the risks
In terms of what's legally allowed, "employers have the right to set the terms and conditions of employment," says Perley Masling. Employers can require employees be vaccinated against Covid-19 or submit to mandatory Covid screenings.
With that said, employers creating a vaccine requirement must "entertain requests for reasonable accommodations as required by law," such as for workers who refuse for religious or medical reasons, including pregnancy. "Each request should be analyzed individually, and employers have right to ask for supporting documentation."
Some employers, already dealing with a labor crunch in certain industries where there are more open jobs than people to fill them, may worry that a vaccine mandate could impact hiring or lead to turnover. But Lee says businesses should be more concerned about the consequences of not supporting public health measures.
From a business standpoint, "it can be very costly in many ways to have an outbreak of Covid-19," he says. "It could subsequently require you to implement more draconian measures, like shutting down the workplace, or you might lose business if you're known as the operation that had a Covid-19 outbreak."
On the flip side, Perley Masling expects many employees may respond positively to an employer vaccination mandate, because they'll feel safer and more supported going into a physical workplace.
Messaging will be key
Dr. Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, says community messaging will be key to getting employees to feel comfortable with a new vaccine mandate. Business leaders should make sure that the group making decisions about the policy, its enforcement and its announcement is representative of the workforce as a whole, with regard to job level and function as well as gender, race, ethnicity, age and so on "to make sure all voices are represented at the table."
People are much more willing to listen to and trust friends, colleagues and people they know rather than someone they've never interacted with, Lee adds.
Employers must also be fully transparent about why they're enforcing the health mandate. Again, leaders can highlight how an outbreak can cause the business to suffer, which could lead to a drop in revenue and employee layoffs.
Companies can also bring in outside health experts to discuss, from a scientific standpoint, the risks of remaining unvaccinated and contracting the virus. These experts should also address misinformation and disinformation about the virus head-on through open dialogue, where beliefs can be freely expressed and addressed in a calm and respectful manner.
"Keep in mind there's an inherent distrust of the health-care system and government among different groups of people, and there's justification of that," Lee says. As organizations share information, such as through articles or by hosting panels with experts, "that has to be accounted for."
He recommends business leaders consider where their employees are located and what the Covid situation and vaccination response is like there.
"Talk to local community leaders and [engage in] shared decision-making so employees feel you're making an effort to reach out to them," Lee says.
More companies mandate vaccines as delta variant spreads
As the coronavirus pandemic has tightened its grip on the U.S. yet again this summer, more employers are getting onboard with a workplace vaccine mandate.
This week, the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first major federal agency to require health-care workers receive the Covid-19 vaccine, and California became the first state to require state employees and some health-care workers to do so. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced similar guidance for city employees and health-care workers, and urged private-sector businesses follow suit. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo later announced state employees would be required to show proof of vaccination or face weekly testing.
In the private sector, companies including Morgan Stanley, Saks, Delta Air Lines and The Washington Post have all announced their own vaccine requirements for employees in recent weeks. On Wednesday, Google announced it was delaying its return-to-office plans until October and that employees must be vaccinated to go back in-person.
The Biden administration's vaccine requirement follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updating its guidance that fully vaccinated people should resume wearing a mask in public indoor settings again in places with "substantial and high" Covid-19 transmission rates.
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